As an overweight, overly-nervous child, I felt more comfortable in my house with books than I did outside. Sitting in my room I would stay up ‘til all hours of the night reading stories rich in natural history through setting, subject or both.
I romanticized what I read in books: secret gardens, perfect sitting trees, growing up on a farm, wild New England, special relationships with animals, the list goes on. I had this obsession with a perfect sort of nature that I could control within the confines of my imagination. I even went so far as to try to cram myself into my ill-fitting bedroom window to have the perfect relaxing reading spot close to nature. That lasted all of 35 seconds before the pain sent me back to my desk chair.
Experiences outdoors could have been available to me if I were open to them. My mother had (and still has) a close relationship with nature through gardening but, as she recently put it, “eating, sleeping and using the restroom outside are not for me,” so family camping was pretty much out of the question, but I could have joined her in the garden at any time. I never did. Even when my mom brought in fresh-cut flowers from her garden or the roadside, I was uneasy—weren’t there bugs crawling all over them?? My siblings and I never hunted for frogs or caught fireflies, never explored the woods or even our own backyard.
When I was a pre-teen, my mother had to basically bribe/beg me to go to day camp at the local Y. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was every counselors worst nightmare—didn’t want to play sports or any sort of run-around game (might get sweaty—others would notice my weight), didn’t want to get up in front of my fellow campers and sing songs or act silly (everyone else will think I’m a total dork), didn’t want to touch fish, amphibians, insects, etc. (ew, slimy). Once, I even cried during a wacky relay race because I couldn’t whistle with crackers in my mouth. I mean really, I must have been exhausted from all my worry and anxiety.
I did find joy in camp activities like rock face painting in which we got to sit in the cool woods on large boulders in the stream and rub two small, wet rocks together to make “face paint.” I could do that for hours and not get bored of it. I went on a few organized biking and fishing trips (mostly because the boy I liked went—let it be known that he barely knew I existed!), but still none of these inspired that “ah ha!” moment.
Whether it be the boys, the candy from the Sugar Shack, arts and crafts, or my mother forcing me to, I stayed at camp a few more summers and even became a Counselor in Training. That summer my best friend Amanda and I were assigned to the beach with the Waterfront Director, Brian. Our task was to help him take out the old dock and put in a new one. Brian was our favorite counselor and obviously one of those people who grew up in nature. He felt completely comfortable on the water and in the woods, full of confidence and ease.
At the boathouse, Brian handed us the awful, orange life jackets, complete with moldy black ring-around-the-collar. Rolling our eyes, we put them on. He smirked, grabbed a long pole and led us to the waterfront. We stood on a section of the dock as he unfastened it from the others. Before we knew it, we were floating on the bay, Brian steering us with the pole—“Just like Huck Finn!” he exclaimed. We were at once exhilarated and scared. Our cool 8th grader façades faded away. We laughed, we shrieked, we used silly accents. I never felt so free in my entire life.
Our Huck Finn experience didn’t last long, an emergency at camp brought us back to shore. However, something clicked in me that day. A little seed was planted deep inside of me and for that I will always be grateful to Brian because he linked me with the natural world in a way that organized activities never could. That day is the reason I am now an outdoor educator.
These are the experience we can give to our younger cousins, our kids, our nieces and nephews and siblings. And these experiences are the reason I do what I do now; in the hopes that one of my nature walks, one of my coyote howls or campfires will make that connection in some lost kid’s soul and she’ll be able to finally feel free.